Peach – Super Mario / Paper Mario / Super Mario Bro.s etc. etc. etc.
The go to Damsel in Distress – and I couldn’t agree more. Peach is without a doubt a cliché and a trope. She is constantly being capture and needing saving. She plays almost no role in the story except the reward at the end.
I think there are two things to consider with Peach. One – is the Damsel in Distress trope a problem because of its over usage, its nature, or both? In many ways, Peach is one of the originals following the trope in video games and is it fair to blame her for others choosing to mirror her? I would say that it is not and that a primary concern with tropes in general is the fact that they are over used. In excess they become an issue but in moderation actually result in a variety of representations.
However, I would also argue the Damsel in Distress trope by nature is a negative representation, because it places the damsel as an object to be won. So no, Peach has no excuse.
At least in the majority of games she is noted to be in, through which her perception is based. However, as a character she appears in a wide assortment of genres and games in which she often takes on less sexist roles.
This article does a good job of explaining some of them.
“But fortunately for fans of the princess, a variety of Mario spin-off games would once again put Peach in the player’s control and also start to develop her as a character. In Super Mario RPG, following her rescue, Peach wasn’t content to sit idly by and plotted to sneak out of her own castle in order to join Mario in saving the world. In the Paper Mario series, Peach is shown to have a bit of a mischievous side as the player is able to take control of the kidnapped princess, reading Bowser’s diary and generally causing trouble for her captors. In the Super Smash Bros. series, Peach shows herself as a capable fighter, and in the various Mario sports games, Peach can definitely hold her own. And while the possible implications of the “vibe” mechanic in Super Princess Peach could warrant their own article, it was still very gratifying to finally see Peach not only get a starring role in her very own game, but also be the one coming to Mario and Luigi’s rescue.”
And this article takes a specific look at Super Princess Peach, where Peach takes on the role of the main playable character and Mario becomes the Damsel in Distress.
Cortana – Halo
I could go on about Cortana but I think these articles say it best.
Here are a few quotes that stand out from the first article linked.
“Just because a character looks attractive, in absolutely no way is this ‘objectifying’ them. Consider for a moment the fact that Cortana’s ‘sex appeal’ has never had any effect on the plot, or is in any way a definitive aspect of her character – as a matter of fact, it has never, ever been brought up in the narrative context of the game and I highly doubt that it ever will.”
“It is Cortana’s intellect and resourcefulness that empowers her, not her body.”
“This is a deeply emotional story about an artificial person coming to terms with her mortality and her humanity, not about teasing the male audience with an attractive female to gawk at. Halo 4’s story is very much Cortana’s story, it’s seamlessly interwoven with the core of the narrative and provides a beautifully nuanced, poignant and passionate portrayal of the character.”
“She beats back rampancy and saves John because of the innate trust and loyalty these two characters have for each other, it’s not “oh she’s a character who needs a man”, especially when John is about as emasculated as the action hero male goes. It’s clear from his reaction that John can’t even bear the though of actually living without her when she tells him that she’s not coming with him, he relies on her just as much as she relies on him (if not more)”
“Cortana has her moments of weakness and moments of strength… She doesn’t just “kick ass and win”, nothing about Cortana’s character and story can be simplified to any Hollywood trope”
While I agree with their analysis, I want to pose some questions to play Devil’s Advocate.
If Cortana’s beauty is not necessary to her character, why does it exist? What is the point of having her being so revealing of it does not impact the story or her personality in any way? Is it simply a symptom of Bungie and 343 Studios needing to appeal to their perceived market?
Even though, in Halo 4 especially, a large part of the narrative is the narrative of Cortana’s own struggles, why is she relegated to a secondary role even if she has a thematic presence? What does it say that the role she is relegated to is that of an assistant to a male while she is a female?
Samus Aran – Metroid
This is a character I love for who she is and hate for the perceptions she has gone through.
Early Samus is a bounty hunter we all assume to be male because she is kicking ass and taking names. She is unstoppable, exploring perilous terrain, taking on dozens of enemies, never showing fear, never flinching from danger. And at the end of the beauty that is Metroid, this bounty hunter is revealed as a woman. Shocking to the gaming community she was thought of was championing woman in gaming
Samus showed that a woman could do all the things that men could do as a protagonists, and the game could be just as fun.
Questions started to arise concerning how sexual Samus was without her Power Suit. This article defines some of them
“Inexplicably, this hardened killer has a bikini body: scarless, thin, toned but not intimidatingly muscular. And the player views this body, sans the armor that makes it deadly, as a “reward”. Thus the player switches from sharing agency with Samus to viewing her as a passive object–from being her to watching her, as with Lara Croft in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Samus’s value as a person fades: instead there arises an adolescent male fixation on her sexual difference. Some might claim that Samus’s “reward” outfits are themselves expressions of confident agency. But these screens contradict her reserved personality; and their status as rewards gives them a gratuitous, voyeuristic hue.”
I take the sexuality of Samus’ body in a different perspective. Instead of it functioning as a reward, I believe – and for me as I played through some of the games – it functions as a reminder that this isn’t a man or a sexually ambiguous character. Nor is this character separated from beauty because of her strength. I found these considerations to be important, because I feel that portraying Samus as sexually pleasing in the zero-suit is a necessary contrast to the appearance in the power suit in order to retain her feminine quality in the video game environment. This feminine quality is what makes her capable of being a positive symbol.
Another aspect of Samus that frustrates me, is the contempt for her portrayal in Metroid: Other M. Here, her emotion and flaws are revealed.
This article describes it as
“the formerly silent character is given voice for the first time, a voice that goes against everything her character once stood for and backtracks on the trails she once blazed.”
It criticizes portraying Samus as having weakness and emotion because it contradicts her strength and power in previous entries. To me, this portrayal serves to deepen her character and make her more realistic. No person is tough 100% of the time both internally and externally. By portraying Samus as emotionally struggling through her actions, but achieving her goals none the less, she becomes more human.